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Keys to Success

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Keys to Success: Davidson Chocolate Co. gets creative for holiday rush

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

John and Sue Elliot, owners of Davidson Chocolate Co., don’t sleep much during the holidays. And though their two locations – the flagship in Davidson and a second shop in Dilworth’s Kenilworth Commons shopping center – close at 7 p.m., it’s a rare for the couple to lock up before 10:30, Sue said.

That’s because they have thousands of seasonal confections to make, from eggnog truffles to chocolate sleighs, hundreds of orders to ship (wrapped and encased in freezer packs), and dozens of charity events to donate chocolates to.

It’s all part of the responsibility of being a “personal chocolatier” to two communities fiercely supportive of their local small businesses.

The couple, both 61 and Mooresville residents, started Davidson Chocolate Co. in 2008 after five years spent restoring a formerly defunct chocolate shop in the North Carolina mountains.

John, a graduate of the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy with more than 25 years of experience in the food industry, is head chocolatier. Sue, whose background is in accounting, helps run the shops and manage the books.

The couple’s son, John Jr., a Davidson College graduate, handles their marketing.

Sue said it takes an incredible amount of planning to come through the holidays intact and ready for the next big rush, Valentine’s Day, so ShopTalk asked her to talk strategy.

Here are some of their guiding principles:

Don’t hire uninitiated seasonal workers: Though Davidson Chocolate will often produce up to 2,000 confections a day during the holidays, Sue said they’re very intentional about seasonal hiring and time management.

Rather than hire and train new employees, they made a policy only to rehire former employees – those who could re-enter the operation seamlessly. Usually that’s college students home on winter break, Sue said.

“There’s too much going on ... to stop and tell someone what to do and look over their shoulder,” Sue said. If she and John had to do training on top of their hectic schedules, they’d get behind on orders or their quality would drop, she said.

Occasionally, however, she’ll ask them to come back in January. Then they’ll have time to fully train them before the Valentine’s Day rush.

Start preparations months in advance: Sue said she and her husband are always on the lookout for new ideas, and trade magazines can be a great source of inspiration.

Sometimes it comes from lists of trends, but much of the time it’s more subtle. For example, Sue said she noticed in a number of magazines (many not even food-related) that red-and-white polka dots were growing increasingly popular.

They key, she said, is testing out the ideas long before Christmas lights go up.

They got their idea for a gingerbread truffle in July and then began perfecting it, Sue said. They try to have all their new ideas determined and testing by September or early October.

Let custom orders breed innovation: At Davidson Chocolate Co., they try to accommodate nearly every custom request.

And afterward, they’ll consider whether it’d be worth adding to their regular rotation, Sue said. One of their current best-sellers, chocolate-dipped wine bottles, started with a customer who brought in a single bottle.

The customer brought in the bottle, and Sue wrapped it in cellophane. Then she dipped it in chocolate, wrapped it again and added colorful ribbon. They now sell for $21.95 a piece (not including the bottle). The store sells so many of them that some passers-by think they sell wine at the shop, Sue said.

“As a thank you, we sent (that customer) one or two (chocolate-dipped) bottles for free,” Sue said. “She suggested something, and it worked.”

And though they rarely turn down a custom order, there’s one chocolate-dipped request they haven’t accommodated – yet.

“Bacon,” Sue said, laughing. “We draw the line at bacon.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; On Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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